The sailcloth shroud - By Charles Williams


I was up the mainmast of the Topaz in a bosun’s chair when the police car drove into the yard, around eleven o’clock Saturday morning. The yard doesn’t work on Saturdays, so there was no one around except me, and the watchman out at the gate. The car stopped near the end of the pier at which the Topaz was moored, and two men got out. I glanced at them without much interest and went on with my work, hand-sanding the mast from which the old varnish had been removed. They were probably looking for some exuberant type off the shrimp boat, I thought. She was the Leila M., the only other craft in the yard at the moment.

They came on out on the pier in the blazing sunlight, however, and halted opposite the mainmast to look up at me. They wore lightweight suits and soft straw hats, and their shirts were wilted with perspiration.

“Your name Rogers?” one of them asked. He was middle-aged, with a square, florid face and expressionless gray eyes. “Stuart Rogers?”

“That’s right,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

“Police. We want to talk to you.”

“Go ahead.”

“You come down.”

I shrugged, and shoved the sandpaper into a pocket of my dungarees. Casting off the hitch, I paid out the line and dropped on deck. Dust from the sanding operation was plastered to the sweat on my face and torso. I mopped at it with a handkerchief and got a little of it off. I stepped onto the pier, stuck a cigarette in my mouth, and offered the pack to the two men. They shook their heads.

“My name’s Willetts,” the older one said. “This is my partner, Joe Ramirez.”

Ramirez nodded. He was a young man with rather startling blue eyes in a good-looking Latin face. He appraised the Topaz with admiration. “Nice-looking schooner you got there.”

“Ketch—” I started to say, but let it go. What was the use getting involved in that? “Thanks. What did you want to see me about?”

“You know a man named Keefer?” Willetts asked.

“Sure.” I flicked the lighter and grinned. “Has he made the sneezer again?”

Willetts ignored the question. “How well do you know him?”

“About three weeks’ worth,” I replied. I nodded toward the ketch. “He helped me sail her up from Panama.”

“Describe him.”

“He’s about thirty-eight. Black hair, blue eyes. Five-ten, maybe; a hundred and sixty to a hundred and seventy pounds. Has a chipped tooth in front. And a tattoo on his right arm. Heart, with a girl’s name in it. Doreen, Charlene—one of those. Why?”

It was like pouring information into a hole in the ground. I got nothing back, not even a change of expression.

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“Couple of nights ago, I think.”

“You think? Don’t you know?”

I was beginning to care very little for his attitude, but I kept it to myself. Barking back at policemen is a sucker’s game. “I didn’t enter it in the log, if that’s what you mean,” I said. “But, let’s see. This is Saturday—so it must have been Thursday night. Around midnight.”

The detectives exchanged glances. “You better come along with us,” Willetts said.

“What for?”

“Verify an identification, for one thing—”


“Harbor Patrol fished a stiff out from under Pier Seven this morning. We think it may be your friend Keefer, but we haven’t got much to go on.”

I stared at him. “You mean he’s drowned?”

“No,” he said curtly. “Somebody killed him.”

“Oh,” I said. Beyond the boatyard the surface of the bay burned like molten glass in the sun, unbroken except for the bow wave of a loaded tanker headed seaward from one of the refineries above. Keefer was no prize, God knows, and I hadn’t particularly liked him, but—It was hard to sort out.

“Let’s go,” Willetts said. “You want to change clothes?”

Yeah.” I flipped the cigarette outward into the water and stepped back aboard. The detectives followed me below. They stood watching while I took a change of clothing and a towel from the drawer under one of the bunks in the after cabin. When I started back up the companionway, Willetts asked, “Haven’t you got a bathroom on here?”

“No water aboard at the moment,” I replied. “I use the yard washroom.”

“Oh.” They went back on deck and accompanied me up the pier in the muggy Gulf Coast heat. “We’ll wait for you in the car,” Willetts said. The washroom was in a small building attached to one end of the machine shop, off to the right and beyond the marine ways. I stripped and